Balenciaga: He was New York’s big coup of the season. Nicolas Ghesquiere breezed into town on the wings of a lot of excitement and a little controversy, making his Balenciaga show the week’s hottest ticket by far. Certainly in the collection he showed on Wednesday afternoon, he lived up to his reputation as one of the nerviest and most experimental designers working today. But genuine experimentation has its pitfalls, and while one must laud audacity and innovation, this collection fell short of past Ghesquiere blockbusters.

The designer said that he wanted to combine the structure of last fall with the softness of spring. And he certainly succeeded in achieving that end. Ghesquiere’s tailoring is impeccable, the jackets molded like works of art. He started on the racy side of classic with riffs on the aviator jacket in leather and thick, ribbed wool. These had huge face-framing collars and topped wool pants or jeans cut with high waists that worked. And thank goodness somebody’s showing lean-cut pants — let’s face it, all those wide numbers out there aren’t going to fly. For anyone who wants to tread the refined side of Tough Chic, the look is a must. He then went soft while still playing on the masculine-feminine motif, with big gray sweaters over blue chambray shirts and flippy ruffle-edged skirts. The look: senorita-meets-schoolgirl to delightful effect.

But then Ghesquiere let his creative exuberance run wild. Referencing spring’s wonderful collage theme, he went mad with fabric mixes and asymmetric cuts — one sleeve tight, one sleeve loose, a bib here, a blouson there. Intellectual? Perhaps. But those whose degrees lack a PhD in fashion cool might confuse it for a bunch of tricks. As for that other reference, remember those famous floor-mop epaulets Nicolas showed a few seasons back? Now, a girl could swab Montana with her giant rag-mop sweater. But that’s no matter. Unlike too many designers, Ghesquiere takes a chance. He dares, and even in an imperfect outing, it’s a thrill to have him flaunt his brilliance on a New York stage.

Narciso Rodriguez: People who don’t work in fashion must think we’re all nuts when they hear those who do talk seriously about the pros and cons of showing real clothes on the runway. “Real” are the only clothes they have any interest in at all, save for infrequent occasions, for instance, Halloween, the high school musical, Mardi Gras. Some designers even share that point of view, and refuse to budge, even at show time. Narciso Rodriguez is one such designer, and in the collection he showed on Tuesday night, the real world looked beautiful indeed. Once again, Rodriguez showed in Michael Thompson’s Chelsea photo studio, ironic in one sense, because Rodriguez staunchly avoids the just-for-editors flourish. But viewed in another way, one could extract a subliminal message: These clothes are picture-perfect, just right for all those real-life photo ops when a woman wants to feel and look beautiful.

At the heart of the collection: Glamour. Sophisticated, adult, untricky glamour, with a hint of Old Hollywood, not in Harlow slither or Crawford Tough Chic, but in the notion of polished, sleek sensuality. Narciso worked in an all-neutral palette — whites, pale grays, blacks — while engaging in subtle plays of tone on tone and texture on texture. Rodriguez showed some easy lines in clutch coats and jackets. For the most part, however, he kept his shapes reed-thin, but cut them in supple fabrics that kept the attitude elegant as well as sexy. While some dresses skimmed the body, the corset motif gave others hourglass definition, and he supplied appropriate dazzle with gold bullion embroidery on a coat and a fabulous skirt brought down to reality by a crisp, tight white shirt.

For evening, Rodriguez rejected beads and sparkle for a kind of glamour that is both unabashed and under control. Flimsy dresses looked off-handed, while a pair of flyaway satin blouses over back-wrapped skirts are perfect for the woman who plays the game of seduction to win.

Oscar de la Renta: Enough of this low-key nonsense. That’s simply not for Oscar de la Renta — or his woman. So bring on the color, the romance, the embellishments, and that much-neglected-of-late excess. Against a colorful photographic backdrop of scenes at a souk, Oscar led his audience on a shopping tour through his own exotic bazaar that touched on India, Marrakech, Mongolia, luxed-up gypsies and bejeweled princesses.

The collection began in a relatively quiet mood for day with cashmere sweaterdresses, trim double-faced suits, strict peacoats and officer’s coats all done up with shiny buttons — you know, the commercial stuff. And what really looked best here were the pretty ruched sweater sets in cashmere and silk worn with lean skirts or pants.

But soon, Oscar let loose with his far-flung inspirations, decorating cashmere coats with elaborate ethnic embroideries, hand-painting others or shaping them into colorful silk patchwork numbers. Then he added sable trims, fox hats, coin-embroidered boots and horn belts to the mix. Sound a bit overwhelming? Perhaps, but Oscar managed to pull it off with panache.

As for evening, it was all over the place — everything from Raj-jacketed smokings to full-blown ballgowns, one in black tulle loaded with glittering embroidery, another in amethyst taffeta that was ruched to a fare-thee-well. In between, there were swirling gypsies in coin-embroidered taffetas, smocked chiffons trimmed with mink and sheer lace and chiffon numbers with handkerchief hems. Or, as Oscar might put it: Indulge!

Michael Kors: Like Rodriguez, Michael Kors couldn’t care less about playing to the fashion-insider set at the expense of his beloved, big-spending girls. Last week he referred to his clientele lovingly as the “Third Wives Club.” But that monied moniker doesn’t mean its members don’t shop with caution. These days, two maintenance checks and an Enron investment might nudge any man to start perusing the AmEx bills, so the lady of the house must exercise good judgement.

How so? By going for the basics, of course — yet still always buying the best. In his program notes, Kors addressed “the balance of sporty and soignee,” and he played to the attitude with a lineup of good, go-anywhere clothes. On the down side, they didn’t make for the most exciting presentation. But they did make a lot of sense. Of course, even in fashion’s most reality-aware circles, common sense is relative. So pile on the cashmere, girls, along with the camelhair sweaters, feathery cashmere knits, and fur, fur, fur. In fact, now hubby can chase the chill, as well, because in his debut men’s collection, Kors showed almost as much fur for men as for women, including an enormous coyote storm coat a la P. Diddy sans diamonds, or Joe Namath in the glory days of Bachelors III. He handled many of the women’s furs more discreetly; you have to be up pretty close to be positive that the floor-sweeping shearling is not sheep but mink.

When its too warm for fur, Kors’s ladies will wear plenty of clothes inspired by the sporting life: graphic little ski sweaters, coats and skirts with toggle closures, motocross jackets, and, yes, a miniskirt every now and then. But life isn’t all ski slopes and motocross, and when a girl’s feeling gentle she can play the angel with a devilish streak, in a smocked cashmere dress sheer enough to reveal the panties underneath.

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